In 1920, Charles Sheeler and fellow photographer Paul Strand explored the dynamism of New York City’s architecture in their experimental film Manhatta. The unique angles of the skyscrapers and city blocks they captured would recur through much of Sheeler's subsequent career. However, in the early 1930s, Sheeler found himself at a crossroads, urged by his new dealer Edith Halpert of The Downtown Gallery to abandon his lucrative professional photography career to focus solely on his work as a fine artist. The present work, View of Central Park, was born from this period of transition, during which Sheeler acquired the most important patron of his painting career and rediscovered the medium of conté crayon as a means to capture some of the qualities he most admired in photography.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller purchased her first work by Sheeler from The Downtown Gallery in 1928, and her support remained steady over the next several years, bolstering the artist during his difficult years of transition to full-time painting. She would eventually buy about a dozen other works by the artist, several of which are now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as well as sponsor his 1935-36 residency at Colonial Williamsburg. Mrs. Rockefeller also commissioned the present view of Central Park, showing the west entrance drive from 77th Street and the drive along the lake. The work was inspired by a view from the sixth-floor rotunda at the American Museum of Natural History looking east to the Ramble at upper left and the classic New York skyline in the distance. Likely referring to the hourglass pond at lower right, which would be demolished in the mid-1930s, Sheeler later reflected that the view was “a scene for which [Mrs. Rockefeller] had particular affection and which was soon to be changed.” (L.N. Dochterman, The Stylistic Development of the Work of Charles Sheeler, vol. I, Ph.D. dissertation, State University of Iowa, 1963, p. 70)
Executed in conté crayon, View of Central Park exhibits Sheeler’s exceptional skill with and delight in the time-intensive medium. While the artist likely completed the drawing based on reference photos as was his practice, the crayon allowed Sheeler to maintain his focus on his goals in fine art, while still exploring a high degree of detail and the possibilities of a monochrome palette as he would with a gelatin-silver print. Indeed, “Sheeler would later claim that the conté drawings were the works ‘which most closely approach photographs’ and which ‘were made to see how much exactitude I could attain.’…With conté, individual marks could readily be buried, so that it was easy to achieve a seamless, strokeless texture akin to the smooth, nongestural surfaces for which he was striving in his oils. The exactitude, the rich, sensuous textures, and the evocative tonal contrasts conté allowed enabled Sheeler to fulfill the high ambitions he maintained for his drawings: he wanted them to be as fully realized as his paintings in form and design; often, they were also their equal in intricacy, emotion, and scale.” (C. Troyen, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 25)
In the present work, Sheeler’s aptitude with the crayon is evident in the wide variety of tones and textures he is able to evoke. The foreground bridge delves into the deepest of pure blacks, while the distant buildings are the lightest silver. The transitions between sidewalk and road, water and lawn, are subtle yet palpable, while varied hatch marks capture the unique jagged form of one of the park’s massive boulders. Trees, still bare from winter, form a forest of vertical lines of varying thickness throughout the scene, paralleling the beautifully delineated lampposts along the drives. In addition to these broader stylistic techniques, the drawing is also extremely rich in the minutest of details, unmistakably transporting the viewer to a specific time and place. As Carol Troyen and Erica Hirshler describe, "View of Central Park is filled with picturesque details, such as the rowboat of spring, a tiny craft just visible among the almost-budding branches; the matron waiting for a streetcar at lower left; the mother and child just entering the park; and the long sedan edging into the picture at center right—charming incidentals that create a sentimental portrait of the park designed to please Sheeler's much-admired patron." (Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, p. 144)